Art Class Adds Massive Farm Mural to Alabama Museum
Thanks to Auburn art students, the Opelika Museum of Eastern Alabama now carries a second mural acknowledging the region’s rich history and agricultural contributions.
A class of 13 students and three hired artists painted the mural as part of a semester-long project under the direction of Wendy DesChene, an art professor at Auburn University. The class started the mural in January and recently completed the artwork.
Elements of the mural include Booker T. Whatley and George Washington Carver, professors of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. Whatley was known for developing techniques such as drip irrigation, while Carver became internationally recognized for his promotion of peanut butter.
“That’s why there are peanuts (in the mural),” DesChene said with a laugh. “Everything is up there for a reason, except maybe the cow…and the chicken; they kind of represent all the cute farm animals.
She described the artwork as the largest outdoor mural she had ever worked on, with the class assembling it like a puzzle after painting it in sections on 16 different panels of a material DesChene called “fabric. wall”.
“Sometimes the sign was here, and then the sign that went right next to it was in another room,” DesChene said. “We would use things like the Instagram layout to try to make sure they’re all aligned.”
Myra Stephenson, a 2021 Auburn University art graduate with a concentration in painting, was among the contributing artists who worked with the class.
“It was really fun to work with other people and watch them grow as artists,” Stephenson said. “A lot of these people haven’t even painted before…so seeing them paint for the first time and being able to do things with their hands is fun to watch.”
She said her favorite elements of the mural are a dress she painted on one side of the canvas as well as an outline of a peacock in a vintage “peafowl” advertisement.
“It’s fun to think that something you’ve touched or worked on is going to be there for who knows how long and how many people are going to see it,” Stephenson said.
Auburn’s Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities led the funding for the artistic effort, budgeting the project at a total of $20,000 for the 35-foot-long, 14-foot-tall mural on the condition that be completed in one semester.
“Our center was honored to support this project with Professor DesChene and her students,” said Mark Wilson, director of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center. “For them to be able to pull this off, especially in one semester, is pretty remarkable, I think.”
Glenn Buxton, director and curator of the Museum of East Alabama, said the mural was a long time coming. Originally, the art was to occupy the Avenue A wall, painted by an Auburn art class led by New York artist Esteban del Valle.
“They had come and finished finishing the wall, put the grid in place, already had the paintings here and had their electric lifts there to do the painting,” Buxton said. “And when they got ready to start, COVID hit and the university shut everything down.”
The museum has since commissioned artist Chris Johnson Columbus, Georgia, to paint a mural on the wall honoring other local historical and industrial figures, which he completed in March across the museum. But, the opportunity reappeared in the fall of 2021 for Auburn students to contribute when Buxton was told the university still had money to fund a mural for the museum. He, in turn, informed the university that a small pavilion had been built for Old Nancy, a 1904 Case steam traction engine that the museum recently received as a donation.
“I said it would be ideal to make it an agricultural exhibit and it would be nice to have a mural on that wall,” Buxton said. “Wendy came with her class and I took them through the museum and told them things I was imagining (being in the mural) but it was up to them to design what it was like.”
DesChene said the final design had to match the colors of Old Nancy, which arrived shortly after the class began painting.
“Our color palette is based on Old Nancy looking its best, so there’s a lot of black, there’s accents of red and there’s green,” DesChene said. “Old Nancy has long been used as a generator for a sawmill…and of course lumber is also very important in this region. So everything in the mural has some sort of connection to (eastern Alabama). “
The mural may have been a way for students to improve their painting abilities with public art, but those involved with the project say its goal was also to forge interaction between Auburn students and their community.
“We always want to have as many projects (as possible) where students and community members can benefit from each other,” Wilson said. “There’s no better way to do this than to give students a hands-on opportunity to make sure they get their own vision of what public art and community art can be.
Stephenson said the project was a great way for her and current students to donate to the museum while learning history in the process.
“It’s fun to think that something you’ve touched or worked on is going to be there for who knows how long and (who) knows how many people are going to see it,” she said. “It was really cool to see it all together because you really don’t think about how agricultural everything is while you’re here because Auburn (is getting) so professional with apartments.”
The city of Opelika is set to commemorate the mural in a May 12 ceremony at the Museum of East Alabama, with the public invited to attend and enjoy free food and drink. The ceremony will also recognize Johnson’s mural on the Avenue A side of the museum.